Cutting-edge science and long-pondered questions explained in plain English. Bad science gutted. Great science extolled.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Give Us This Day, Our Daily Multivitamin, Or Not

TK Kenyon, your intrepid scientist for non-majors, is not surprised to tell you if there’s one decently healthy thing that a lot of people do, it’s taking a basic multivitamin. Good grief, taking a little pill with decent amounts of the essential micronutrients and minerals keeps you from getting scurvy, right?

Right. Most people don’t eat sufficient fruits and vegetables. Most people don’t get enough vitamin C over the course of a week to keep them from getting low-grade scurvy, unless you’re one of the smart few who toss back an orange juice shot in the morning.

(Just for the record, I’m not getting up on my high elliptical strider and being healthier-than-thou. I imbibe espresso shooters in the morning. We’re all on the same dusty rowing machine, here.)

However, you should consider your special circumstances before you even decide whether or not to swallow that vitamin pill.

There are also some very interesting studies relating the regular use of vitamin pills with an increased risk of cancer. Contrary to the expectations of the researchers, one study linked Vitamin A supplementation with an increased risk of lung cancers in male smokers.

In addition, taking a multivitamin increased the possibility of deaths from prostate cancer in men. Why would that be?

The multivitamin-cancer correlation suggests an interesting hypothesis.

In the past, our ancestors, probably even our relatively recent ancestors in the 1900’s, likely experienced transient malnutrition. In the winters, especially, they had less access to fresh, nutritious produce and almost certainly experienced cyclical vitamin deficiencies.
Thus in the winter, a budding cancer cell with its blazing metabolic furnaces would probably starve to death for the lack of vitamin C and vitamin K, which would manifest itself as only a very mild case of scurvy or a few nosebleeds in an adult and would be rectified when tender spring greens appeared.

Now, with our year-round produce and megavitamin pills, we do not experience these cyclical, transient vitamin deficiencies. We are super-nourished, and thus our cancer cells grow robustly in this rich stew of essential nutrients.

Before you give up your daily multi, however, there are some very important things to consider.

People with the highest levels of vitamin D (available in supplemented milk, pill form, and sunshine,) had lower levels of cancer and osteoporosis.

If you’re a woman of childbearing age, taking a daily multivitamin during any trimester of pregnancy or in the month before pregnancy decreases the risk of neuroblastoma in the infant by 30% to 40%. Neuroblastoma is the most common cancer seen in infants and accounts for about 10% of all pediatric cancers. Not to mention that whole folic acid—neural tube defect thing. Taking a big preggers prenatal multi during pregnancy is very, very likely the best course of action.

Also, non-smokers who do not have heart disease who use multivitamins that include A, C, or E reduced risk of dying from heart disease by 15 to 18%, and heart disease kills far more people than cancer does.

So, for a general rule of a healthy thumb, if you’re a smoker, avoid vitamin A, even if you have to take a handful of single-vitamin pills instead of a general multi.

If you have prostate cancer, stop taking your multi.

If you don’t smoke and you don’t have prostate cancer, a multivitamin is probably the best course of action.

If you want hedge your chances, however, here’s an idea: there’s some very good research that supports the hypothesis that eating 300-500 fewer calories per day extends lifetime and, more importantly, extends robust lifetime. That’s right. Eat less.

Some good research came up lately that showed that mice that ate normally every other day and semi-fasted (eating 15% of normal calories) on the off days had essentially the same life extension and reductions in heart disease, cancer, and inflammation. If you try alternate-day semi-fasting, don’t take a vitamin on those days. Taking a megavitamin on feasting days will nourish your body well.

Fasting is associated with life extension and with reducing the debilitating side effects of chemotherapy.

TK Kenyon
Author of RABID: A Novel, a novel of autoexperimentation, unwitting guinea pigs, and green-glowing rabies virus, and CALLOUS: A Novel, a story about free will, neuroscience, fate, the nature of memory, and the End of Days.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Great Fat Prize!

Osamu Shimomura of Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), Woods Hole, MA, USA; Martin Chalfie of Columbia University, New York, NY, USA, and Roger Y. Tsien of the University of California, San Diego, CA, USA have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery and development of Green Florescent Protein from jellyfish, GFP.

Osamu Shimomura first isolated GFP from the jellyfish Aequorea victoria, which drifts with the currents off the west coast of North America. He discovered that this protein glowed bright green under ultraviolet light.

Martin Chalfie demonstrated the value of GFP as a luminous genetic tag for various biological phenomena. In one of his first experiments, he coloured six individual cells in the transparent roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans with the aid of GFP. While the discovery of the protein was indeed important, Chalfie made the enormous mental leap that took GFP from being a nifty protein to being one of the most important biological tools in use today.

Roger Y. Tsien contributed to our general understanding of how GFP fluoresces. He also extended the color palette beyond green (by mutating the gene very subtly so the emitted wavelength of light is slightly different, which means it’s a different color,) allowing researchers to give various proteins and cells different colors. This enables scientists to follow several different biological processes at the same time.

One of the really great things about GFP is that it fluoresces in living cells, thus allowing scientists to study cells while they are still alive. Most other microscopic tools are predicated on the cell being dead, fixed with formaldehyde, and the cell membrane made permeable with a detergent. This denatures all the proteins in the cell and changes the morphology of many of the cell structures.

It must be noted by this bitter little polymath that the snooty, parochial Swedes don’t yet consider American scientists to be “too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue,” as they erroneously believe American writers are, according to the Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary, Horace Engdahl.

TK Kenyon
Author of RABID: A Novel, a novel about Catholicism, evil, and GFP-tagged rabiesviruses, and CALLOUS: A Novel, a story about free will, neuroscience, the nature of memory, and the End of Days.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Autoexperimentation for Prizes and Profit

As a scientist, sometimes, you have to take matters into your own hands.

Or into your own arm, and occasionally, your own heart.

Autoexperimentation is the very risky practice of wildcat science. If you can’t find an animal model for a virus, inoculate yourself. If you can’t find a volunteer, step up.

Several autoexperimenting scientists have won the Nobel Prize.

Nobel Hearts

Werner Forssmann won the Nobel in 1956 for performing the first cardiac catheterization. In 1929, he hog-tied his assistant to an operating table to prevent him from intervening, inserted a urethral catheter into a vein in his own arm, threaded it 65 cm into the right atrium of his own heart, then walked down a flight of stairs to the radiology department of the hospital in which he was employed to have a confirmatory X-ray taken, showing the catheter indeed lodged in his own heart.

It’s What’s Eating You

Barry J. Marshall and J Robin Warren also won the Nobel Prize in 2005 for their work on Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria that causes ulcers.

Before Marshall and Warren’s work, ulcers were thought to be caused by stomach acid and stress. As I was told by more than one doctor: “it’s not what you’re eating, it’s what’s eating you.”

As it turns out, what was eating me was Helicobacter pylori.

(By some coincidence, the doctors were wrong on both counts: it was also what I was eating. See the blog:

Marshall and Warren had great trouble publishing their seminal, well-researched, statistically relevant paper in any journal. Even the tabloid rag of the science world, The Lancet, was leery and delayed publication of their work because it contradicted medical dogma on many levels.

Marshall, frustrated with his lack of success in developing an animal model for H. pylori infection and the procrastination of publishing his results, swallowed a concentrated culture of the bacteria. After five days, he got sick, very sick, with gastritis and vomited acid-free gastric juice.

His wife demanded he get antibiotic treatment or else he would be “evicted from the household to sleep under a bridge.”

His tactic worked, and the paper with Marshall’s human trial data on himself was published and later widely confirmed.


Some autoexperimentation, however, has been fatal.

In 1885, a medical student named Daniel Carrion, determined to prove that “Peruvian warts” disease was caused by bacteria rather than bad water as commonly thought, inoculated himself with the blood a sick person. He died of the deadly disease a few weeks later.

His death accelerated research into the dread disease, and he is still a heroic figure in Peru, albeit a tragic one. The disease, bartonellosis, is also known as Carrion’s Disease.

Using Kids as Guinea Pigs

Some people experiment upon their own children.

When their son was diagnosed with ALD, adrenoleukodystrophy, a fatal disorder, Augusto and Michaela Odone studied biochemistry because all ALD treatments available at the time were ineffective. They formulated a treatment, a combination of the triglyceride forms of oleic and erucic fatty acids, for their son Lorenzo and tried it while doctors begged them not to, culminating in the famous line from the movie: “And nobody can tell me what dressing I put on my kid’s salad, OK?”

While clinical studies’ results with Lorenzo’s oil are contradictory, some parents have found that it delays onset of symptoms. Lorenzo Odone lived twenty years longer than is average for ALD patients.

Some people are currently experimenting on their autistic children as, like the Odone’s experience, standard treatments for autism appear less than effective. A massive array of drugs, chelation therapies, nutritional interventions, and special diets (usually elimination) have been compiled here, the cumulative result of thousands of individuals’ experiences.

Note that these results are not the results of double-blind clinical studies. However, many therapies in this list have been found by these anecdotal compilations to be ineffective (like Klonapin, an anti-seizure drug,) or downright harmful (like amphetamines,) so beneficial results cannot be entirely chalked up to placebo effect.

“Not My Kid.”

However, not every doctor or scientist with a bright idea rolls up his own sleeve or his child’s to dedicate his body to science. Edward Jenner, renowned as the “father of smallpox vaccination,” a vaccination that has saved millions of lives and exterminated the terrible virus itself in the wild, dedicated his life, money, and reputation to promoting the use of the cowpox vaccine for smallpox.

However, in 1796, when Jenner had his flash of genius, he did not roll up his own sleeve, scratch his own skin, and smear on some pus from a suppurating cow udder, nor did he risk a family member. He enrolled the child of a peasant family, James Phipps, in his clinical trial of n=1 to test his possibly lethal technique.

Someone had to go first, but it wasn’t someone from Jenner’s family.

TK Kenyon
Author of RABID: A Novel, a novel of autoexperimentation, unwitting guinea pigs, and green-glowing rabies virus, and CALLOUS: A Novel, a story about free will, neuroscience, fate, the nature of memory, and the End of Days.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Fasting Reduces Chemotherapy Side Effects

Listen to me. These starved little mice could save your life.

Recently, an article appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a prestigious scholarly journal, about fasting and chemotherapy. The author, Dr. Valter Longo, studied mice that were denied food for two days (but had ready access to water) or had eaten normally. The two groups were then given a high dose of chemotherapy (three times the maximum allowable dose in humans.)

The fasted mice survived and experienced few side effects from the toxic levels of the chemotherapy drug.

Almost half of the mice that ate normally died from the high dose of the chemotherapy drug itself.

Though the fasting mice lost about 20% of their body weight while fasting before the chemotherapy treatment, they steadily gained the weight back in about four days after the treatment.

That’s right, the fasting mice gained weight right after chemotherapy.

The feasting mice, on the other hand, lost about 20% of their body weight following the chemotherapy treatment, from the usual effects of chemotherapy that any cancer patient can expound upon.

More Fasting, More Chemo

To further confirm their results, the scientists tried an even more stringent protocol on another strain of mice. Lab mice are notoriously inbred, and different genetic strains can produce contradictory results. Good results can be confirmed in several mouse types.

These mice were starved for 60 hours (2 1/2 days,) which is the amount of time that the researchers found to be optimal in other tests. Fasting for longer than 60 hours weakens the mice more than it helps them resist the chemotherapy and makes them die more. Then, the scientists dosed these mice with an even higher dose of the chemotherapy drug, almost four times the human maximum allowable dose.

This very high dose of the chemotherapy drug killed all the feasting mice within five days but none of the fasting mice (60 hours of fasting) in the next twenty days. The fasting mice lost 40% of their body weight before the chemotherapy treatment but gained it back within a week after the treatment with, in the words of the authors, “no visible signs of toxicity.”

Let me put it thusly: The exceedingly high dose of chemotherapy killed all the normally eating mice, but if the mice were fasting, it didn’t even make them sick.

Naked Data

Longo also repeated these results in Nude mice, a hairless strain of mice without thymus glands and thus little immune function. They are used extensively in cancer research as they have no immune system to fight the introduced cancer, and thus all the effect of cancer reduction can be attributed to the tested chemotherapy drug.

His results were essentially the same: starved Nude mice survived. Non-starved Nude mice died from the high-dose chemotherapy drug.

Starving Mice with Cancer

Longo then injected mice with virulent cancer cells, a neuroblastoma cell line, using a protocol that mimics the conditions of aggressive, metastatic pediatric cancers, which are some of the most deathly cancers.

Not only did the fasted mice survive the subsequent chemotherapy with fewer side effects, but it appeared that the cancer cells were more susceptible to the chemotherapy than normal cells. The fasted mice survived the metastatic cancer protocol almost three times as long as normally eating mice and around five times as long as untreated mice.

This suggests that the fasted state did not protect cancer cells nearly as much as normal cells were shielded from the effects of chemotherapy, thus suggesting that longer or higher-dose chemotherapy protocols might be devised with fewer side effects but better results.

Longo hypothesized about the reasons for the effect of fasting. He surmised that, as any dieter knows, fasting slows cellular metabolism in normal cells. Thus, after fasting, the normal cells in their state of semi-suspended animation took up less of the toxic chemotherapy drug and thus were less affected by it.

Cancer cells, however, are relentlessly driven by oncogenic growth factors to be fruitful and multiply, no matter what the metabolic cost. Thus, fasting did not lower the metabolic rate of cancer cells. The cancer cells, with their metabolic afterburners still lit, sucked in the chemotherapy drug and were killed by it.

It’s a great mouse study.

Clinical Trials: Starving Cancer Patients

Longo is currently enrolling lung and bladder cancer patients for a clinical trial to fast before receiving their standard chemotherapy.

The lung and bladder cancer patients in the control group (people given standard treatment only and allowed to eat normally, to compare the effectiveness of fasting vs. not-fasting,) will be told what cancer patients are currently told: eat to keep your strength up. You need all your strength to survive chemotherapy.

The fasting group will be asked, first, to fast for 24 hours before treatment. If that is determined to be safe, they will be asked to fast for 48, then 72, hours before treatment.

Now, given what I’ve just told you, if you had cancer and were scheduled for chemo next week, what would you do?

More on autoexperimentation soon.
TK Kenyon
Author of RABID: A Novel and CALLOUS: A Novel, a story about free will, neuroscience, fate, the nature of memory, and the End of Days.